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8 Influences on My Life

These are the people, places and things that have marked my journey as a chef.

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This is one-eighth of Andre Chiang’s How I See the World.


 A FATHER’S WISDOM

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My father is a very simple person, working from nine to five in the same acrylic fibre company for the last 30 or 40 years. For him, work is a means of earning money so that he can buy a better stereo set, a music CD or a new tea set. He doesn’t want more. He doesn’t need more. He doesn’t have much to talk about but, from him, I learn what is enough.

Sometimes, we get lost wanting so many things that we forget what really makes us happy.

ART ATTACK

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(Apart from my mother who had a Chinese restaurant in Japan), the rest of my family are not into food. However, all three of us are into art. My sister, who is seven years older than me, studied art, and we had a lot of paintings, fashion magazines, art magazines lying around the house.

As a child, I didn’t have a lot of toys, just lots of canvas, colours and sketchbooks. So, my elder brother and I would pretend that the wooden sketch mannequins were Godzilla or Ultraman figurines and play out fight scenes with them. Because we didn’t have much, we made do and exercised our creativity. All that shaped my thinking process.

SIBLING (DIS)SIMILARITIES

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My elder brother, Nic, and I are buddies. Even though we are six years apart, I was very attached to him and learnt everything from him. However, he was very naughty and would constantly get punished. He would do exactly everything that he was told not to. Every kid is curious but seeing him get whipped and punished every day made me very quiet and averse to making mistakes. I won’t do something just because I’m curious – I want to be sure of the consequences of everything I do.

Also, because I followed whatever he did, I was much more mature than other kids of my age. At 12, I was listening to Guns and Roses and Aerosmith, and we hung out at clubs. It was only after I left Taiwan at 13 that I became my own person. If I hadn’t, I might have followed his footsteps and gone into entertainment.

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

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The Pourcel brothers (Jacques and Laurent) are like my stepfathers – right from the beginning when I arrived in France, with no where to stay and not speaking a word of French. They gave me a room at their house, took me to Carrefour and told me to pick a bicycle (I picked a black one), and they also gave me a small television.

That was how I started – an empty room with a television set.

FINDING HIS FRENCH PALATE

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In 1997, the Pourcel brothers asked all 35 cooks (at Le Jardin des Sens) to create a dish of their own in a competition of sorts. Being a Taiwanese who just came from Japan, I wanted to create something that didn’t come across as ‘Asian’. So I started with truffle and foie gras, which are distinctly French ingredients, then created a texture that isn’t normally associated with foie gras – something that is unexpectedly light – and the warm foie gras jelly with black truffle was born.

The dishes were sent to the three owners, the Pourcels and Olivier Chateau. When they asked who made the foie gras dish, I freaked out. I was just a commis chef and they had singled me out. They asked how it was cooked, for how long, at what temperature, and said they were putting it on the menu. I always felt I was a step behind because I don’t speak French and I didn’t have the food background the locals had – I didn’t even know what is a good crepe or a coq au vin.

That dish changed the perception. It made me think: I can do it. For once, I was ahead of everybody and that gave me a lot of courage and confidence to create. With that dish, I was no longer afraid to think out of the box, as long as I kept the French spirit in mind – it’s not just the French who can cook French.

A FARMER’S LIFE

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Later, the Pourcel brothers introduced me to a Mr Colomina, who had a farm near the restaurant. I stayed in a barn on site and, in exchange, I woke up in the wee hours to help the old man harvest and put the produce nicely in a cart, which he wheeled to the market. Three years there gave me the foundation knowledge needed to grow my own vegetables in Taiwan.

 THE BETTER HALF

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My wife, Sudarampai ‘Pam’ Chiang, is the other half of me and we do everything together, from creating concepts to picking out items for the restaurants. We are the same person when we look at beautiful things, but completely different when we talk about life. My life is about work; whereas her life is about me and my work – I feel terrible saying this! We got married 11 years ago, after three months of knowing each other.

UNRAVELLED AND RECONSTRUCTED

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The two years in Seychelles (with Maia Luxury Resort & Spa) was when I discovered who I truly am, without the distraction of expectations, trends, or influences of information we get in the city. Before then, I was like an engine working 24/7 – and then suddenly it was shut down and taken apart to see how it worked. I learnt to listen to my heart.

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